Testimony from the Old Dominion before the Joint Committee of Reconstruction

Article excerpt

by RICHARD LOWE*

HISTORIANS have generally agreed that the Joint Committee of Fifteen on Reconstruction played a significant role in the reintegration of the Union after the Civil War.l Nevertheless, they have devoted surprisingly little attention to the testimony taken by the committee during the winter and spring of 1866. Considerable interest has been focused on the committee's drafting of the Fourteenth Amendment and of various other pieces of legislation, but there has been little examination of the testimony or the witnesses and interrogators who compiled the information collected by the committee. In Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction (1960), Eric L. McKitrick recognized this problem and called for a more detailed examination of the committee's hearings. Few scholars, however, have heeded his suggestion.2

Analysis of the testimony given on the Commonwealth of Virginia is a crucial first step toward gaining a better understanding of the information compiled by the joint committee. Of the 137 witnesses on eleven states who appeared personally before the committee, forty-nine (36 percent) were from Virginia. Half of all the southern Unionists (seventeen of thirty-four), more than half of all former Confederates (nine of seventeen), and 100 percent of the black men (seven) who gave statements to the joint committee testified about conditions in the Old Dominion. More pages of oral testimony were collected on Virginia than on any other state. Indeed, the figure for Virginia was more than four times greater than the mean number of pages of testimony for the other ten states of the former Confederacy.3

Why the Old Dominion was given such prominence before the joint committee is not explicitly spelled out in the panel's report. The physical proximity of Virginians to the hearing room in Washington and Virginia's leading role in the Confederacy doubtless provide much of the explanation. In any case, an analysis of the testimony on Virginia should provide a revealing look at the information solicited and offered before the joint committee.

One month after the formation of the committee in December 1865, members agreed to form four subcommittees of three persons each to take testimony. The subcommittee appointed by Chairman William P. Fessenden, Republican senator from Maine, to hear witnesses on the states of Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina was composed of Senator Jacob M. Howard (Michigan), Congressman Roscoe Conkling (New York), and Congressman Henry T. Blow (Missouri), all Republicans.4

By far the most active member of the subcommittee was Howard of Michigan. This New England-born former Whig was one of the founders of the Republican party in 1854 and was consistently radical in word and deed during Reconstruction. He was a large, red-cheeked man with a prominent nose, gray hair, and an educated, if ponderous, manner of speech. He alone interviewed forty-eight of the forty-nine witnesses from Virginia, and he shared questioning with Conkling and Blow of the forty-ninth (Robert E. Lee). Unlike some members of the joint committee, Howard rarely missed a meeting; his one brief absence was to attend the funeral of his wife of thirty years. Indeed, of the twelve men who served on the four subcommittees, Howard was easily the most prominent interrogator. He interviewed five witnesses before other subcommittees as well as all of the Virginia witnesses. Fessenden may have been chairman of the overall panel, but Howard was the man who elicited most of the information about the states of the Confederacy. The Michigan senator's leading role in the testimony phase of the committee's work, overlooked by historians, supports the view that Howard was a more significant figure in Reconstruction politics than is generally understood.5

The ambitious and flamboyant Conkling, thirty-six years old, first entered the House of Representatives in 1859, clung closely to the radical wing of the Republican party during and after the war, and became increasingly prominent in the postwar years. …